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ARCHIVED - Old Messengers, New Media: The Legacy of Innis and McLuhan

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Key Concepts

"I don't study causes. I study effects… No one else is doing this." Interview with Nina Sutton, November 1975

As a media personality, McLuhan used different media to popularize -- and promote -- his ideas. His methods for disseminating his ideas are perhaps best understood as reflecting a larger theoretical commitment: the only way out of the media pervasiveness is to understand it and then "turn off the button," as he described it. In his pedagogy, McLuhan believed it was crucial for him to use media to his own end, so as to demonstrate the ways media used -- or massaged -- its users and their culture.

Media, under McLuhan's analysis, constitute a broad category: cars, speech and language are examined alongside what we more commonly think of as media -- newspapers, television and radio. All of these "artefacts" can be treated as media because, as technologies, they mediate our communication; their forms or structures alter how we perceive and understand the world around us. McLuhan argues that media are languages, with their own grammar and structure, and that they can be studied as such.

McLuhan believed that media exert effects by reshaping the ways in which individuals, societies and cultures perceive and understand their environments. Thus, he saw the goal of media studies as making visible what is invisible. Making the effects (as opposed to the explicit or overt "messages") of media technologies visible involves discerning patterns within their environments, including interactions with other media. Recalling his time at Cambridge, McLuhan put forward that technologies in a culture, like words in a poem, derive their meaning from context. Like Innis, McLuhan developed a method for analyzing media -- that looked to the broader culture and society within which a medium operates -- to pick out patterns of its effects.

Also much like Innis, McLuhan believed that the introduction of new technologies into a society has a determining influence on how that society is organized, how its members perceive the world around them and how knowledge is stored and shared. Although both McLuhan and Innis believed that media were biased according to time and space, McLuhan paid particular attention to the "sensorium," the effects of media on our senses. He posited that media affect us by manipulating the ratio of our senses. For example, the phonetic alphabet stresses the sense of sight, which in turn affects how we think: linearity and objectivity are the results.

McLuhan treated all technologies as extensions of our bodies: a pencil is an extension of the hand, while the wheel is an extension of the feet. He insisted, however, that these extensions are dialectical: products of the environments from which they come (including social, political and economic dimensions), they also alter that environment. In this way, both environments and technologies mediate our lives. McLuhan argued that media create environments that influence our perceptions to such an extent that we fail to fully take notice of their effects.

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Marshall McLuhan links his literary and aesthetic approach to the study of communications, interview with Nina Sutton, November 1975.
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Photograph of McLuhan holding a mirror that contains his reflection, 1967, by John Reeves


Marshall McLuhan, 1967. Photograph by John Reeves

Photograph of Marshall McLuhan seated at desk, consulting books, with row of telephones on wall behind him, 1967, by Yousuf Karsh


Marshall McLuhan, January 21, 1967, photograph by Yousuf Karsh

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